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Did 'the Enlightenment' K.O. Christianity?

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 Contents - Jun 1992AD2000 June 1992 - Buy a copy now
Monika Hellwig visits Australia - Michael Gilchrist
Did 'the Enlightenment' K.O. Christianity? - David Quinn

If we are to understand our times, we must understand the Enlightenment. Almost all our modes of thinking have been shaped by this event. This is true of Christian and non-Christian alike.

The Enlightenment had at least two main strands. One led to the American Revolution and the liberal democracies. The second strand led to the French Revolution and eventually, Communism. This second strand believed equality was more important than individual freedom. If, in the name of equality, certain "freedoms" would have to be sacrificed, then so be it. The State, it was thought, would play a crucial role in bringing about equality. However, because we live in a liberal democracy, we shall concern ourselves with the first strand.

Basically, the Enlightenment's aim was to reshape society, having determined the basic needs and wants of the "people". It was believed that the healthiest and most viable society would be the one which best provided for such needs as food, shelter, health and the like. It was a little harder to determine the wants. In the end it was decided that because people are motivated, not so much by altruism, as by self-interest, above all else they want the freedom to pursue happiness in their own way. From this concept was formulated the concept of natural rights as exemplified in the American Constitution with its rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

Both strands did agree on one thing. To have any hope of implementing a program of social reform, the massive power and authority of the Church had first to be confronted. The sort of pluralist society envisaged by the strand of the Enlightenment we are discussing here could not possibly come into being so long as there existed an institution which had such power that it could compel people to think and act in a particular way held to be inimical to the happiness of the majority of people.

The Church's role as appointed interpreter of God's will and the Bible's as the repository of God's revelation were challenged in the light of "reason." Secondly, and much more radically, the very existence of God, and hence of absolute truth and morals, was thrown into doubt. The individual was put in the place of God as the creator of values. Matters of right and wrong became matters of opinion. Nothing more.

In such a society, upon what do people base their values? Generally speaking the value of something is determined by its usefulness - in the absence of a real, lived-out belief in anything else, there is really no rational alternative. Thus, where a person seeks happiness, something is good if it brings happiness, and bad if it does not. Because different things make different people happy, opinions about what is good or bad will differ sharply. However, such differences will be of little or no importance where morality has been relativised, unless the actions of one person are likely to intrude badly upon the happiness of another, or upon society. This - or imposing one's belief system upon another - is seen as the only absolute evil.

In the light of our relativism, this is, of course, a logical absurdity. However, it is a necessary absurdity as it allows us to have our cake and eat it too. That is, in order to enforce a relativist view of truth, we have allowed ourselves the luxury of absolutising that view. This represents an enormous faultline in modern thinking and it should be exploited to the full by modernity's critics.

Our utilitarian view of things, needless to say, has a very baneful effect upon the way we relate to one another. If, for example, personal happiness is our overriding goal, what will happen if we decide our spouse is making us unhappy? What will happen if our children are making us unhappy? What is likely to happen when a pregnant woman decides that her pregnancy has come at a bad time? We should not be at all surprised to find a high divorce rate, countless neglected or homeless children, a low birth rate and a high abortion rate in such a society. This is the natural consequence of making the right to be happy the supreme right.

A "reasonable" religion?

To what extent have such attitudes permeated Christian ways of thinking? Christianity - as practised by most Australians - has degenerated into a form of Epicureanism, a sophisticated means of seeking happiness which is not confined to sensual pleasure. Epicureanism holds that through the exercise of wisdom contentment can be found. The wise person, realising that the unbridled pursuit of sensual pleasure can be self-destructive, instead seeks contentment through a limiting of desires and through the joys and solaces of friendship. A great many Christians, I believe, would not be able to tell this view of life apart from their own religion. After all, they might argue, isn't Christianity about making people happy? And isn't it about limiting our desires? And isn't friendship very important in the Christian scheme of things? All in all, it is a very 'reasonable' religion. However, Christianity in that sense, is emphatically not a 'reasonable' religion.

As Kierkegarde [the renowned Danish philosopher] reminds us, nothing displeases or revolts us more than the Gospels properly proclaimed. The Gospel is supposed to be a scandal. If this seems a little extreme, then we need to look once more to the life and sayings of Jesus. He spoke to us of the necessity to take up our cross daily; of the need to die to self in order to rise to self. He told us that if we are to partake in the Kingdom of God we must be prepared to give up everything we hold dear, if called to. True love is sacrificial. We are exhorted to turn the other cheek, to love our enemies, to forgive those who have trespassed against us. We must even be prepared to sacrifice our personal happiness if love demands it. Nowhere are we exhorted to insist on our rights. Rather we are to put ourselves at the service of others, even when they violate our rights.

The true scandal for the Christian should be a 'reasonable' Christianity - a bourgeois Christianity. Cardinal Ratzinger commented: "In bourgeois Christianity, Christianity becomes a burden that must be lightened to the greatest possible extent ... This type of Christianity certainly has a strong presence in the mass media. But there is nothing in it which suggests that it has a future. One can't feel attracted to a Christianity which has no respect for itself."

"Bourgeois Man" is precisely what Continental philosophers feared would emerge from the new society proposed by the American and English Enlightenment. (This is another reason why the Enlightenment split into two strands). However, it is hard to see how any other type of Man could have emerged.

Christianity can provide a powerful antidote against Bourgeois Man. Unfortunately, the Enlightenment has been so successful in undermining Christianity that Christianity itself has come to believe the criticisms made of it - hence the loss of "self-respect" noted by Ratzinger.

The Enlightenment has been too successful for its own good. So dominant is it that it has robbed us of the very freedom it was supposed to grant us producing, instead, a society punctuated by banality, mediocrity and a lack of genuine pluralism. In a pluralistic society, people would have a choice of several credible world views. This is not presently the case. We are instead bound to various shades of one idea - just as people were once bound to various shades of Christianity.

A strong, self-confident, reinvigorated Christianity would go a very long way towards countering such mediocrity and would help provide the kind of pluralism sought by the founders of the Enlightenment. This is hugely ironic. It is the last thing many of the founders would have expected. Of course, all this presupposes that we Christians have the wherewithal to gain the kind of intellectual distance from the Enlightenment referred to earlier, and that we are courageous enough to look deeply into our own souls and determine whether we are in fact more Epicurean than Christian.

One final irony in all this is that it should be orthodox Christianity which - probably unwittingly - provides the best chance of bringing into being a truly pluralist society whereas liberal Christianity, the Enlightenment's fellow-traveller, threatens to extinguish any chance at all of bringing it about.

David Quinn, Irish-born and an active Catholic layman in Brisbane, continues his theme (explored in the February 'AD2000') of the long-term effects on modern Christianity of the 18th century European Enlightenment.

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Reprinted from AD2000 Vol 5 No 5 (June 1992), p. 13

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